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Kallmann: Sun Sets On The Mile

| , RacinToday.com Friday, December 18 2009
NASCAR racing at the Milwaukee Mile is headed into the sunset. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images for NASCAR)

NASCAR racing at the Milwaukee Mile is headed into the sunset. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images for NASCAR)

Editor’s Note: Dave Kallmann is the long-time auto-racing beat writer for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. He agreed to write an obit column about the oldest continuously operating track in America for RacinToday.com.

By Dave Kallmann | Guest Columnist

Milwaukee, Wis. – You can’t feel sad for a racetrack.

It has no heart. It’s really nothing more than asphalt and concrete and steel, hotdog wrappers, beer stains, tire bits and dust.

So that empty feeling, that sorrow, must be for memories of the Milwaukee Mile that will continue to fade. For the echoes of cheers powerful enough to overpower engines, the likes of which may never be heard again. For the oldsters who can say that they whooped it up when A.J. went wheel to wheel with Parnelli or that they were on hand to see Jim Clark make rear-engine history. And for the youngsters who never had a chance to see the next Foyt, the next Andretti, the next Earnhardt or Wallace or Dixon or Patrick blister the asphalt under a bright summer sun.

She is gone, folks. Finished, at least for now.

For 106 years, the Mile was a part of an international racing culture, built earlier than Indy and rightly claiming to be the oldest continuously operating speedway in America.

Now, after a fruitless search for a person or group to promote races, she’ll sit mostly silent next summer.

The board of directors for State Fair Park, the grounds on which the track is located, finally admitted defeat Wednesday. There will be no major racing in 2010. The Indy Racing League pulled out in August, and now NASCAR will follow. There’ll be a few car shows perhaps and some Sprint Cup Series testing, no doubt, considering the Mile is no longer a part of any of the three national series. Maybe some regional stock-car series will rent the track and put on a race in front of a few hundred fans.

But the Mile has too much history to call that a life.

While no one in any sport cares to concede, this has been a long time coming. The board members will continue to be torn up mercilessly by fans and talk-radio screamers. While they share in the blame it’s impossible to keep track of every misstep, mistake and incidence of mismanagement.

For starters, the place got old, racing changed and the Mile struggled to keep up. A crowd of 20,000 may have been good for a USAC race in the 1960s, but those numbers stopped making money in the 1990s if not sooner. Even with a redone grandstand and 40,000 seats – which, by the way, were rarely full – how could the Mile and its blue-collar market possibly compete against the 150,000-seat stadiums in Las Vegas and the Dallas and Chicago markets?

Had anyone in the 1980s foreseen NASCAR’s boom and had the track been a one-owner facility rather than a venue rented by a state-affiliated landlord to a promoter tenant, the Mile might have boomed with it. Instead NASCAR took its premier division to another small oval in an underserved market, Phoenix.

The promoters at the time were businessmen brothers Frank and Dominic Giuffre. They didn’t get along with park management and ruffled feathers at CART before ultimately being ought out before 1992. Following them in running the Mile were: Indy-car team owner Carl Haas; State Fair Park, itself; Milwaukee Mile Holdings, a group that promised other development; and Claude Napier, who bought a reprieve for 2009 but never had the money to cover his debts.

Since June, when Napier’s Wisconsin Motorsports laid off its staff and locked up its office, State Fair Park has negotiated with four potential promoter groups, and at least twice a deal seemed imminent. But one group, Historic Mile LLC, couldn’t bring together the financial backers it promised it would have, and then the Giuffres walked away abruptly. They say the fair board changed the deal on which both sides had agreed; the fair folks contend the Giuffres misrepresented their group and then simply pulled out.

Through all of this, the bottom line remains the same: the bottom line.

As a business entity, the Mile hasn’t made sense for years. State Fair Park is charged with being self-sustaining, yet it was forced to underwrite as much as $3 million in annual debt recently. None of the potential promoters could see a way to make money.

For racing of significance to get another shot at the Milwaukee Mile, someone with deep pockets and more interest in their legacy than their paycheck could come along. NASCAR and the IRL both like the market, and both want to return as long the checks don’t bounce.

Or the local tourism folks and businesses could rediscover how the track had benefited them, the state could realize what a quality-of-life asset they’ve lost and an eager promoter could find a way to work with all of them. That’s a long shot but probably the best one to exist.

As someone who spent parts of 20 summers at the Mile, I’m disappointed with what’s come about, of course.

There’ve been days from hell with gales, rainstorms, hailstones, impending deadlines and frustrating exchanges with angry drivers and clueless folks who were supposed to be helping. But I’ve been privileged to see Rick Mears exit Turn 4 so smoothly, to chat with Dan Gurney and Mario Andretti, to watch Matt Kenseth develop and to follow Paul Newman as he nervously paced pit lane.

It’s OK to be angry. It’s natural to be melancholy. But if you’re going to feel sorry, do so for the laborers who couldn’t afford to go to the track once their jobs were wiped out by the encroaching Rust Belt, for those who risked life and limb there in the name of entertainment and for the people who won’t be able to enjoy the next 106 years at the Mile.

And whatever you do, remember. Memories, it seems, are all that’s left.

– Dave Kallmann can be reached at dkallmann@journalsentinel.com

| , RacinToday.com Friday, December 18 2009